Small-business owners in trades -- such as plumbing, heating and cooling repair, electrical contracting and carpentry -- have a difficult task in marketing their services. Some of the more astute at marketing no longer spend weekends stuffing flyers in neighbors’ mailboxes and pinning them to cork boards between the automatic doors in their grocery stores. Instead, they’re embracing the Web.
“Gone are the days of the Yellow Pages,” says Laura Ries of branding consultancy Ries & Ries in Roswell, Georgia. “Today people use the Internet to find everything from a house, to a husband, to a plumber, to a good book.”
“What’s new is the ability for customers to advertise your business,” says Andy Sernovitz, author of Word-of-Mouth Marketing: How Smart Companies Get People Talking. Small contractors can advertise at lower rates online and also get exposure through consumer recommendations posted to Angie’s List, Judy’s Book, ServiceMagic and other sites that feature customer reviews.
No More Mailbox Stuffing
“We only did mailbox stuffers twice,” says Colleen Angellar, de facto marketing manager of Angellar Home Improvement & Handyman Service in Roseville, Minnesota. “I distributed them myself in very local neighborhoods with mailboxes at the curb so I could just drive by.”
She learned her lesson. With a distribution or more than 300 flyers, Angellar Home Improvement only got two jobs. Adding to the decision to drop flyers was the call from an angry recipient to report the papers blowing all over his neighborhood. “I had to go pick them up and never tried that again,” Angellar says.
Due to such outcomes, astute trades marketers like Angellar are thinking harder about how and where they get the biggest bang for their investment and finding their answer both off and online.
“We’re creative and spend very little on marketing,” she adds. Her firm does two annual mailings. The first is a business update to all customers and referrals on the company’s anniversary. That mailing gives top customers a chance to win a weekend at the Angellars’ Boundary Waters cabin if they return a self-addressed postcard. The second mailing, a December holiday card, typically arrives with a branded calendar.
Angellar also advertises, but again selectively, placing ads in suburban weeklies and supplementing with the higher tech equivalent: free ads on Craigslist. She says her company now spends a little more than $50 a month for newspaper advertising and $100 for each of the annual mailings. Sites like LowesForPros.com help small-business owners in the trades create flyers, ads and business forms as well as impart advice on marketing their businesses.
Use Word of Mouth
That’s not to say that some of the old ways don’t work. For many tradespeople, a number of leads are still generated the old-fashioned way -- word of mouth. Steve Wood, president of Village Contractors in Skokie, Illinois, says 20 to 25 percent of his work comes through word-of-mouth referrals. The Angellars claim 50 percent of their customer base does.
But even word-of-mouth now has a virtual bent. Two customers have added Angellar Home Improvement & Handyman Service to Angie’s List. “Many tradesmen get business from recommendations,” Ries says. “The Internet can help facilitate word of mouth.”
According to Sernovitz, “We’ve always had word-of-mouth, but the Internet is radically changing the scale. The job for a small business is to be earning good recommendations. If you become a top-reviewed business, especially on something like Angie’s List, that top spot can almost sell you out, getting you more business than you’d ever want.”
Keep a Cap on Spending
To control your contracting business’s reputation and grow business without a big marketing budget, try this advice.
“We know people in the business who not only spend a ton of time and money on marketing, but then as a result, spend a ton of time and gas on driving all over the place to work,” Angellar says. Local marketing has worked well for Angellar Home Improvement and has cost the couple little. Says Colleen Angellar: “Tony’s always working and rarely has a job more than five to 10 miles away.”
- Advertise where your clients are. Wood has placed an ad in the annual Blue Book of Building and Construction directory for the past nine years. He pays monthly installments for his ad, so he is able to afford the tool that delivers him strong sales leads.
- “Have a bankroll behind you for advertising, or advertise with just a sign on the front lawn of your client’s house,” says Wood. Business growth may be slower with low-budget marketing efforts, but if you lack the resources for flashy promotion, you likely lack the resources to hire extra hands should business flood in.
- Personalize your communications. “I send handwritten thank-you notes for all services as well as for referrals,” says Angellar.
- Make your marketing spend accountable. “It’s a numbers game,” Wood says. What he spends on advertising must be returned in lucrative projects. “Measure your marketing by your sales,” he says.
- Become a bestseller. “There’s now a bestseller list for everything,” says Sernovitz. “That makes it easier for small businesses to compete, because size doesn’t matter. Happy customers are all that matters.” Good online reviews from satisfied customers can eliminate marketing budgets altogether and keep you in competition with companies that have big ad budgets.